Rutgers hoping secondary returns to dominance

Rutgers head coach Chris Ash leads his team in works out during college football practice, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017, in Piscataway, N.J. After taking baby steps in Ash's first season as coach, Rutgers is hoping to walk a little in the Big Ten Conference this season. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) Starting with Jason and Devin McCourty in the mid-2000s, and ending with the departure of Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan after the 2011 season, Rutgers became a launching point for defensive backs looking to get to the NFL.

While flow has dried up in recent years, the Scarlet Knights’ secondary this season is going to be one of coach Chris Ash’s strong points on a team coming off a 2-10 season.

With the exception of safety Anthony Cioffi, everyone who played a lot last season is back. Blessuan Austin and Isaiah Wharton are at the cornerbacks and Kiy Hester and Saquan Hampton are the safeties. The quartet has 64 starts between them, and each has two years of eligibility.

”When we were freshmen we were thrown into the fire,” Wharton said. ”Didn’t know what to expect.”

From 2013-2015, Rutgers’ pass defense allowed 10,336 yards, some of the most passing yards given up in that span.

After ranking 118th nationally with 275.9 passing yards per game allowed in 2015, Rutgers ranked No. 18 nationally last season, allowing 186.5 yards per game.

”I do really like the guys coming back,” Ash said. ”Blessaun Austin is here today, one of those guys that has a chance to be one of the better corners in the league.”

The success of the secondary is not a surprise. Ash was a defensive back himself at Drake and he made improving the defensive backfield a priority after taking over from Kyle Flood following the 2015 season.

”A lot of people doubted us,” Wharton said. ”Freshman year we gave up a whole bunch of yards every game so a lot of people were attacking us like: `Oh you guys are losing because of the young secondary.’ A lot of people blamed us so we had to take ownership of that so we’re playing with a chip on our shoulder to prove everyone wrong.”

They’ll be doing so with a comfort of having been in similar situations. Of course, that means freshman mistakes should be long gone.

”We’re a veteran group now. Mental errors should be to a minimum if not none,” Hampton said. ”He (Ash) doesn’t expect us to have coverage busts because we’re veterans now and we should be a unit that this team can rely on.”

That starts with relying on each other. Everyone in the defensive back room discussed how close the unit is. They play video games at one another’s houses and that has translated into a more cohesive unit on the field.

”I’ve been with these guys for three years. I came in with all these guys.” Hester said. ”We’re talking, communicating, and just being on the same page and playing fast and that’s one of our strongest suits right now. We all know each other, and we know our strengths and our weaknesses and we mold together as one.”

While the unit has goals of being the best secondary in the Big Ten, they know getting compared to the defensive backfields from the mid-2000s to 2011 would be a good start.

”We use it as motivation,” Hampton said. ”Especially from the guys (Devin McCourty, Ryan and Harmon) playing in the Super Bowl game, we saw all those guys playing in the Super Bowl. We just use it as motivation. We want to be that group and that unit to be remembered just like they were.”

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